Another day in a stretch limo headed north. Everyone in this monstrosity except for the driver is cartooned on Ecstasy. We felt it was in bad form to offer the driver drugs, at least in the middle of the afternoon. The girls crawl around on the floor, smoking cigarettes, playing dice, giggling. We're headed for an adult book store in Long Beach, one owned by the family. Bud and Lou run it, two characters out of a dirty comic strip. They called me up to let me know all creature comforts would be provided for at all three stores we're doing signings at, even food. We will be kept happy.
Our driver, Harris, pulls up in front of the first address. He settles the limo in front of the door, blocking traffic. Screw other drivers, they can go around the large black thing in the street. Harris gets out and holds the doors, allowing us to disembark without the hassle of having to pull on a handle. We go inside.
Lou, short and stocky, is waiting for us. "You're early, too cool!" he exclaims. We check out the layout: it's the same as we've become accustomed to. Display racks have been muscled out of the way to make room for a short row of tables, three comfortable chairs lined up behind them. The velvet ropes are in place, already routing eager fans. The girls inquire about a clean bathroom, and are shown to the employee's biffy. They take turns using the facilities, and come back to the tables. Lou is the model of good manners with all three, which I did not expect of him. I can only guess he's been warned by those higher up the food chain to be on his best behavior.
This is a ninety minute signing. We start early. The line is full of sailors, some in civilian clothing (but easy to spot), some in uniform. Many of them are buying the latest three videos all at once, wanting all three copies signed. The girls oblige. Proposals of marriage fly thick and fast, the sailors lining out their career trajectories like it was a business proposal: "I'll make captain within four years, I can put you in a new car every year, you'll live comfortable...." A lot of hugs were given out to these suitors, who were disappointed to learn of the attachments of the girls. Becky Page fans were particularly disappointed, as Bekka would simply point out the punk rocker working security and say, "He's my husband." Elspeth seemed to be the source of unhappiness, as she had young swabs offering to go AWOL for her, if she'd just run away with them. It was a little heartbreaking.
We wrapped up on time, with dinner (early) set on the schedule at the next bookstore. We arrived, were greeted (politely) by Bud, a lanky piece of work every bit as horny as Lou. He behaved himself. We were ushered back to the manager's office. Chafing dishes bearing tortellini, spaghetti, sausages, eggplant, fried mozzarella, cream sauce, and cold antipasto greeted us. Everyone dug in. Boss smiled at me through a mouthful of sausage, "So what's wrong with how you live, anyway?"
"Besides having people hate me? Not a damn thing," I laughed back, scarfing down tortellini.
We all railed up with coke in Bud's office, then took our places. More sailors, more proposals of marriage. New cars seemed to be the bargaining chips. They were politely refused. Donna could have been married four times, Elspeth five, and Bekka eight. It was a busy signing.
We had twenty minutes to go when a distracted young guy entered. He wasn't Navy, that much was clear. He looked like he'd cut his hair himself. He stood there as though sizing things up. That was enough to attract the attention of Boss and me.
He stepped forward and said, "This is for what you did to the organization!" He reached into his front pocket, trying to fumble out a gun. I saw the movement, shoved Boss out of my way, and got my Beretta clear at the same time he cleared his own pistol, what looked like a cheap .32. As he brought it up to bear, I leveled my own 9mm at his head, knocking it into his temple. He wasn't expecting that. He froze in place. We remained in a tableau, him pointing his guns at the girls, me pressing my Beretta against his head.
I said, "Just let it drop away, nice and slow. You can't win here. If you move, I kill you. Am I clear?"
His nerve dropped off. "I understand."
I said, "What you're going to do is drop your gun, then you're going to turn around and run like hell. I may or may not shoot you. But you stand a better chance running up the street than you would staying here. You have a driver?"
He understood that much. "I do," he said.
I pressed the Beretta against his eye, and his gun dropped to the ground. He wanted to live, regardless of the circumstances. A step away from me was a step towards life, and he recognized that. He wheezed, "What do you want?"
"Who sent you here?" I asked.
"The organization. They have my little girl. I had to kill for them to keep her alive. You were targets. You took the organization's business, now they're broke, and they hate you. I did this to save my little girl."
I waved Boss over. "Take this guy in the back office and kneel on his chest. If he feels like talking, tell me what he has to say." To the gunner, I asked, "What are they driving? Are they waiting for you?"
"Yes. A blue Buick, out front. I have been gone too long."
"What's your name?"
I grabbed him by the neck and threw him at Boss, who had heard my instructions. I hollered, "Keep the line moving. Nothing going on here."
I stepped outside and sure enough there's a blue Buick Century double-parked in front. I walk around to the driver's side. The driver leans out and I say to him, "Your night just went to hell. We have Alexi, and you're going to give up his daughter. They are a nice peaceful family from here on out, do you understand?"
A foreign voice said, "You have me confused," and reached for his crotch. I wasn't feeling patient, so I shot at the crotch. Then I reached down and clawed a damaged gun from between the driver's legs, throwing it onto the floor. I smiled at the passenger, who put his palms on the roof. "I am just riding," he declared.
I stepped up front of the Buick and blew out both front tires. Good old Long Beach, where you only report gunfire when it hits your house. I ordered the passenger out of the car and frisked him, removing a cheap .25 automatic from him. Total garbage. I told the both of them that Alexi was off the table so far as blocks went. What their game was, I didn't know, and I didn't care. The two of them jumped out of the car and took off down the street.
I went inside. Boss said, "What happened?"
"Politics," I said, shouldering my Beretta. "How's our hostage?"
Boss said, "Quiet. Said something about his daughter and wife. Mean anything to you?"
"Yeah it does. Keep the line moving, this is just an interruption in an otherwise quiet night. Let them through. We're all nice people here."
I walked in the back office, where Lou had our hostage under the vague gaze of an AR-15. It was a wasted effort. Alexi was sucking down leftover tortellini and sausages like they'd run away if he didn't eat fast enough. He looked at me in panic and said, "You have come to kill me?"
I said, "No. I have come to ask you questions. Who are you?"
"As I say, I am Alexi. These men, they have my girl? Is that correct? My baby? They have her. I do what they say, or they kill her. I do not know you, but they say the people inside the store here, they must die. If I do not do so, they say my girl will die."
I reached across and put my hand on his shoulder. "We will keep your daughter alive. We're the mafia, we value family. Do you understand?"
Alexi looked up from his food and said, "You will help me save my girl? I try to kill you, and you do this?"
Lou cocked his AR-15 up to one side and laughed. "Yeah, but you'll be changing your allegiances from now on. You know who we are, right?"
"You are.... The enemy. That is what I have been told."
I laughed. "Right now, we're your best friends. We will save your girl, and your wife, and all we ask in return is a little loyalty. Am I clear?"
He had a look I hadn't seen before on his face, one of hope. He asked, "You will save my little girl? I will give my own life for hers."
Lou put a hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry buddy, we'll get all this straightened out. It just takes a little diplomacy. Lemme make a few calls and we'll figure out what's going on. What's the name of the guy you answer to?"
"Sergei. That is all I know."
"Good enough. We can work from there. So what are these guys so pissed off about, anyways?"
Alexi looked up from his food. He said, "You have cost them a lot of money. It is about drugs, something called Ecstasy? Do I say that right?"
Lou and I rolled our eyes at each other. "These chumps again," said Lou.
I said, "Hand me the phone. This is important."
I dug in my wallet and found the phone number to Carlsbad High. I punched in the numbers and waited for a response. Once I got one, I said, "I need to get through to Jane Osborne. This is important, I don't care what class she's in, wherever she is, I need to speak to her. This is her guardian. Get her now."
The phone was set down, no pause. I waited for a long five minutes. Finally I heard Jane say, "Hello?"
"Jane, this is Lenny. Check yourself out of class and head home. You know how we showed you where that spare .380 is up in our room? Go home, grab it, and set it on the coffee table. Those motherfuckers who came after you and dragged you to Long Beach? They're active again. Anyone besides us that tries to come in the house, you blow a hole in them, we'll straighten it out later. We're not playing games here. Just go home, settle on the couch, and wait for us. We still have a stop to make, then we'll be home. You rode the stock Sportster to school today?"
A quiet voice said, "Yeah...."
I said, "Keep your eyes peeled. You think you see anything following you, peel out and outrun them. Hell, here's the address we'll be at..."
I read off the Long Beach address. Jane wrote it down and said, "Things have gotten heavy?"
"Very. You may have a roommate up there on the second floor for a night or two. I'm not sure how things are going to play out."
In a stressed voice she said, "Okay, I'm gone. .380 upstairs. I'll ditch anything trying to follow me. You guys take care."
"We will. You too. Talk to you soon."
Leaving Alexi under Bud's care, Boss and I went out front again. Things were going smoothly, the store staff having settled things down. Ten minutes left to go at this event.
Bud came up and said in my ear, "The don wants to talk to you, come on back in the office."
I went in back and picked up the phone. Don Ventimiglia's unmistakable voice said, "Lenny, you are having trouble with our friends from the Eastern Bloc again?"
I said, "We sure are. We have one of them, but he's a pawn, they're using his family as a bargaining chip against him. How do we handle this?"
The don's breathy voice said, "We will see what their demands are. Do you mind watching this pawn for the amount of time we spend sorting this out?"
"Not a problem, but if this can be worked out quickly, that would be good. This guy, his name's Alexi, they've got his daughter. I'd just as soon figure out a way to get this guy's family back together. It would be real fucked up if he lost his girl to our wars. Know what I mean?"
There was a pause, and then the don said, "I understand. We will do what we can. Keep this man close to you, even if it means having him in your house. Do not let him out of your sight. As so far as your project goes today, do you think you can complete your signings? Lou will provide security at your last stop."
"No problem. So long as the girls aren't too rattled, we'll work our last store and head out. I've got worries at home, my own little girl."
The don laughed. "Yes, the little blue-haired one, the new mascot for my soldiers. Is she in a position to protect herself?"
I said, "If she's away from home, she can outrun it. If she's at home, she can shoot it. That's the best I can hope for. I'd rather have her near me."
"I can understand your feelings. Look, you keep your thumb on this pawn, assure him that we are on his side. I will talk to you at the next store, when Bud calls me. Is this acceptable?"
"Yeah, that works. We're ready to wrap up here, so I'll talk to you soon."
The don chuckled. "Good afternoon, Lenny The Punk."
I stepped outside to find the line had dwindled to just a few. I checked with the girls individually, were they all right? They were. It was a single madman, and he had been handled, just as promised. They did their last few signatures and we headed out front, just in time for Harris to bring the limo up.
"I've got bad news for you," I said to the girls. "The crazy guy with the gun? He's a passenger."
Harris held the doors and the girls seated themselves. I went in and got Boss and Alexi. Boss didn't have a gun, but his size convinced Alexi that trying to run would be a bad idea. They entered the limo, Boss keeping one hand around Alexi's neck. We set off for the next book store.
We pulled up front and Bud greeted us at the curb. He leaned in and said, "Is this him?" gesturing at the frightened man between Boss and me. Alexi was escorted through the store and into the office. Boss and I helped the girls out, walking them to the seating area. There were bottles of Evian sitting in front of each chair. They took their places, the in-house security checked with each other, and things got underway.
In the brief pause, Bekka collared me and said, "What's going on? Why do we have a gunman with us?"
"He's being used as a pawn," I explained. "Those Eastern Europe scumbags we tussled with a while back? They're active again. They're holding this guy's family hostage, making him do their dirty work. Now we've got him, and the family is going to see about getting this guy's wife and kid back to him. I got a hold of Jane at school and told her to hole up in our house until we get home. They came after her once, and I can see them doing it twice. She'll have the .380 close to hand."
Bekka sucked at her bottle of Evian. "Things are gonna get tense again, aren't they?"
"You'd better believe it."